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Exhausted Sense: Sensibility and Synecdoche in Gray and Burns

Exhausted Sense: Sensibility and Synecdoche in Gray and Burns

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Published by Adam Fieled
An analysis of two poetic tropes: sensibility and synecdoche, in eighteenth century English verse, this was first presented as a seminar paper at Temple University in 2007 by Adam Fieled.
An analysis of two poetic tropes: sensibility and synecdoche, in eighteenth century English verse, this was first presented as a seminar paper at Temple University in 2007 by Adam Fieled.

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Published by: Adam Fieled on Jul 19, 2013
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Fieled 1
Exhausted Sense: Sensibility and Synecdoche in Gray and Burns
A complete and completely realized discussion of the poetic trope synecdoche, asapplied to the poems of Thomas Gray and Robert Burns, and contextualized by an
awareness of “sensibility” as an eighteenth century cultural phenomenon, could probably
fill a half-dozen books. The task of this paper will be t
o open up a discussion, “startthings off,” heighten awareness of how the many levels and layers of these texts interact,
 
coalesce, disrupt themselves, and achieve wholeness (to whatever extent “wholeness”
may be achieved in a poem, as interpretations and standards of wholeness may vary from poet to poet, and from critic to critic.) What is at stake is the possibility of a newtheoretical approach to these texts, using sensibility and synecdoche (and the textualinteraction between the two) to break them open, and show them in a new light. Whenseen in the light of my arguments, I hope to convey a sense that these texts may bereevaluated, that interpretive possibilities have not been exhausted, and that there is asubtle connection between the trope synecdoche, and the cultural phenomenon
sensibility, as it finds its way into Gray and Burns’s texts.
This will become clearer oncemy thesis argument is clearly stated.
In engaging Burns and Gray, specifically Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect
of 
Eton College” and Burns’s “To a Mouse,” I noticed a sense of weariness creeping into
the texts. It is a personal weariness, a kind of feeling that Gray and Burns, though still
 
Fieled 2engaged in many of the projects of sensibility (which will be defined shortly), havereached the ends of their respective ropes, hit a psycho-spiritual brick wall. That is,they seem unwilling or unable to extend themselves to the objects of their respectiveenquiries. They seem exhausted. My central argument is that one textually palpable
manifestation of this exhaustion, as expressed in “Eton” and “Mouse,” is the use Gray
 and Burns make of the trope synecdoche (also to be more fully defined shortly.) In usingthis trope, Gray and Burns cut their objects down to size, to make them manageable. Thiscuts against the grain of sensibility, which, by most definitions, involves fellow-feeling,a
n engagement with “wholes” rather than “halves.” I am arguing that, in the context of 
these poems, synecdoche acts as a kind of resort, a refuge away from the demands of sensibility. The implications of my argument are complex. What I will go into in this paper is the implication that sensibility, as a theoretical entity, may not have been asustainable reality for Gray and Burns. This could (I hope) force a reevaluation of these
 poets’ achievements, focusing on the limits of sensibility, how sensibil
ity led eighteenth-century poets to exhaust themselves, and how tropes like synecdoche became a textualmanifestation of this.Careful investigation of my thesis has led me to two sub-theses. Each of thesedeserves its own paper (or book.) Though I do not have the space to do that here, I feelthat I cannot, in good conscience, leave these arguments out, even if they must besubordinated. Upon looking deeper into the respective oeuvres of Gray and Burns, Inoticed another mode of synecdoche. We
will see how, in “Eton” and “Mouse,” Gray and
 
Burns contract their objects. However, in poems like Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a
 
 
Fieled 3
Country Church Yard” and Burns’s “Red Red Rose,” something else is happening.
Rather than a subtraction taking place, a kind of multiplication transpires, wherein notonly are wholes recognized, they are expanded, blown up beyond life size. In these poems, sensibility seems to be working in expansive, rather than contractive mode. Grayand Burns are using poetic devices (Gray reuses synecdoche, Burns uses simile) to takewholes, and through application of these devices, make them bigger. Ordinarily, thiswould seem to refute my basic argument. However, my sub-argument here is that blowing things up shows a will to distort that again shows sensibility strained. Too bigand too small both chafe against the tenets of fellow-feeling. I will explore these textsas adjuncts to the main ones.The final sub-thesis acts as a kind of synthesis. It gives a place for the reader, andthe manner in which Gray and Burns hope to activate sensibility in the reader. Myargument, as it dovetails with my thesis and first sub-argument, is that what is operating
in these texts is a kind of “Double Circuit.” Gray and Burns seem to be aware that they
are connecting with a reader (or readers), who will then make a connection both to them,standing at the center of their own texts, and to their objects. We look at Gray and Burnslooking at their objects, and quite often it seems that Gray and Burns might be looking back at us, as well. If we posit this Double Circuit as an entity in these poems, my thesisargument stands, but is slightly modified, for this reason: though the tenor of the poemsmay seem to be (and actually be) exhausted, the Double Circuit allows us to feel Gray
and Burns’s exhaustion. Thus, we can exercise our own sensibility wit
h the two poets,have fellow-feeling with them. The Double Circuit ensures that some sensibility remains

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